How to Deal with the Common Cold and Flu Herbally - Part 2

I know you've been waiting awhile for Part II of this post to come out, and I appreciate your patience!  I believe you've had some time to mull over what I put out in Part I and you'd like to hear about what herbs to reach for and when.  Or perhaps which herbs you may want to take during the cold & flu season to improve your chances of staying healthy.  Well, let's see what we can do.  There are a lot of herbs out there, but I'd like to focus on the herbs which are largely available within our region.  I'd also like to break them down by category, or property, as I had done in my last post.  Some of these properties or categories may seem foreign or unusual, but I will attempt to clarify my meaning here while helping you to understand why they may be important in the various stages of infection.  Herbalists use categories to help ourselves organize our lives, locate herbs for a given situation, make sense of it all, and be able to convey the knowledge we gain through experience.  Much of this language is inherited from previous generations of physician-level herbalists.  Personally, I believe, a category can never "contain" the actions of an herb, but allows us a window of particular understanding onto the functions and the Nature of said herb.  In acute circumstances, it is important to be able to rely on certain classes of herbs to do certain things (but even that is never 100% certain!).  We are always learning.


This class of herbs explains what the herb accomplishes by somehow releasing heat through the surface of the body, i.e. skin.  Diaphoresis means sweating, so diaphoretics promote sweating in some form or another.  When we sweat we are releasing toxins and waste products through the skin.  It is one of the main ways our bodies can quickly detoxify.  In the case of a viral infection the body needs to heat itself up beyond a certain temperature to initiate die-off of the offending organism.  That's where the fever comes in. However, there must be a transition point, a time when the internal heat reaches a crescendo and it comes pouring out of our body via the skin.  If it doesn't then that may mean danger for our brains due to overheating as the fever rises.  In most cases, the body should be able to calibrate the fever response appropriately.  When our vitality is low we may mount a weak response to the pathogen, or we may linger close to the breaking point, so to speak, thus resulting in discomfort and a delay in resolution of the event.  This makes the illness last longer which drains us of our vitality even further making the possibility of secondary infections more likely.  So given a strong vital response we should do nothing but support a fever - e.g., no food, bed rest, plenty of liquids, perhaps some mild hydrotherapy like a cool cloth to the head, neck, back, and chest.  However, if the patient feels cold and depleted and the fever is lingering then we may turn to stimulating diaphoretics such as Chuchupate, aka Oshá, Wild Oregano, or perhaps Yarrow. 

Monarda fistulosa - Wild Oregano

Wild Oregano or Yarrow both given as a hot tea will promote the resolution of the fever by moving the heat out to the surface.  They heat us up from the inside out, each one a little differently.  Wild Oregano will also have a nice effect on the lungs relaxing and opening.  While the Yarrow may also be relaxing it will certainly help allay any digestive discomfort.  Either of the two may help with joint pain associated with the fever.  Chuchupate is best used as a tincture in hot water or the dry root chewed.  Simply place a piece of the dry, dark celery family root between your gums and cheek and wait for it to moisten.  The sweet, bitter pungency will begin to engulf your mouth and then your whole head.  This is my favorite remedy for the sudden onset of cold or flu, especially with a sore throat and fever with chills.  Simply swallow any juices while keeping the root in until it loses flavor or becomes a soft paste.  I have gone to bed with them in my mouth several times with a fever only to see the fever and infection resolved upon waking.  Now if the skin is very dry and tight and perhaps red in addition to being hot my diaphoretic of choice is Elder flower.  The Elder berry may be of use here also, but I prefer the flower if I have it.  This remedy is applied as a 1/2 cup of hot infusion of the flowers taken orally.  If necessary, repeat within 30 minutes.  The effect is the skin begins to relax, calming and relaxing the patient and allowing the heat to now clear through the surface.  Thus it is categorized as a relaxing diaphoretic.  Interestingly, Yarrow flowers can also be found to act similarly.  A commonly used approach is to combine Elder flowers with Peppermint (our Wild Mint works, too) for an all-around diaphoretic (contains both relaxing and stimulating properties).


When we feel our lungs become "sticky," or inhibited by mucus we need expectorants.  Once again, each herb is different and each individual is different in any given number of situations, but we can generally rely on herbs classed as expectorants to help release impacted phlegm within the lungs.  Mucolytic herbs possess the capability of loosening the mucus so it is available to be moved out once the lungs are stimulated or irritated.  Yes, herbs do often irritate the body in a way that is useful given certain circumstances.  Irritation can be relative.  When the lungs are cold and stagnant and dampness has accumulated then we need to stimulate them by either irritation at the level of the epithelium or by enhancing respiration.  I will talk about some herbs which do each of these things including those that can do both.  One of my local unsung favorites for enhancing the liquification of mucus within the lungs and slightly irritating them to promote expectoration is Cottonwood, or Álamo (Populus fremontii).  Cottonwood is a riparian zone tree which is found most commonly on the eastside of the Tucson basin (where the water table is highest), and up the canyons to about 6000'.  Pictured below is the budding female flower of Populous fremontii.

Cottonwood Flowering

It is useful, but I have found the leaf buds to be more potent agents at opening the lungs, stimulating circulation, clearing dampness, relieving cough, as well as promoting digestion and alleviating discomfort to some degree.  Probably the best way to take this as a medicine is to consume it off of the plant.  The fresh plant tincture works well, also.  You can find leaf buds on the Cottonwood branch tips at this time.  They will begin to open after the flowers (first male, then female) do around the full moon in February (at least here in Tucson; going further north the time is later, and vice versa).    Another beautiful expectorant with a sweet taste is Yerba Santa, our Herb of the Month for November, 2012.  It is warming to both the respiratory tract as well as the digestive system.  When there's a cold with sinus congestion along with chest congestion Yerba Santa is a great choice.  Both the tea and tincture are useful.  Gumweed (Grindelia spp.) is a powerful expectorant.  Like other expectorants it is resinous in nature.  If you crush the flower buds between your fingers in summer it has a gummy feel, hence the name Gumweed.  It can be chewed to some extent but it is nothing like pine pitch, let alone chewing gum, or chicle.  You will find some benefit with coughs as well.  You can combine it with Yerba Santa in tea for dry coughs.  All of the aerial parts of Gumweed are useful.  Within the lungs it works to reduce inflammation, it's antimicrobial, and it speeds tissue healing.  It's a good friend to have around when your lungs fall prey to winter lung grunge.  One more I'd like to mention is Angelica.  Angelica spp. all over the globe have been used in this way, as well as many other uses.  I have found Angelica to be an emphatic expectorant rivaling our local native Chuchupate.

Angelica lineariloba - Sierra Angelica

They are very similar plants in morphology and genetic heritage both being from the Apiaceae (Celery Family).  A fresh plant tincture of Angelica spp. is likely the best preparation for use as an expectorant.  They are high in resinous compounds so much so that the fresh root can be somewhat caustic to the membranes in some cases (another related species Lomatium dissectum is known for this, also).  Just a few drops of Angelica tincture in warm water will produce an emphatic response from the lungs opening the bronchioles and stimulating expectoration.  If feverish, Angelica acts as a stimulating diaphoretic perfect for use when debility is causing a fever to linger below the 'breaking point' longer than it should were the vitality present.  Unfortunately, Angelica is not found in Arizona.  We must go north (Colorado, Utah) and west (California) to find any.


This is where it gets gooey.  Some people hate demulcents (e.g., people that can't stand oatmeal).  However, this class of herbs is a lifesaver in dry climates.  Our mucous membranes serve and protect our inner sanctum.  They line the entirety of our respiratory tract, our digestive tract, and the genito-urinary tract.  When they begin to dry out, you may say that our first line of defense is broken.  The outer skin is also a first line of defense of sorts, but many things that we eat, breath, or otherwise pass onto our mucous membranes may never come into contact with the skin.  Think of it this way, when our mucous membranes are dry, our immune system becomes debilitated.  We sample what's coming into our world via our mucous membranes.  When the mucous membranes become dry, inflamed, or boggy we lose some capacity to alert our immune system of a pathogen's presence.  This is why demulcents are our friends.  Simple unassuming Malva, the weed of alleyways and curbsides all over Tucson and throughout the West, is one fantastic demulcent which even has the capacity to stimulate or enhance our immunity in another way.  It contains mucopolysaccharides which can initiate an immune response by irritation.  In this area, the tea was commonly given as an enema to children when sick.  Now you may have difficulty passing that off on an internet-savvy child of the 21st century but there are other ways.  A simple cold infusion (crush the fresh plant in a glass of water and let sit several hours) will do wonders for soothing a sore throat, improving your chances of fighting off an approaching cold, or enhance your recovery when you're feeling dry and irritated.  All from this genteel "weed" which your neighbor is currently tearing out of every nook and cranny of their xeriscaped yard, or you found growing at the leak in the irrigation (where the Puncture Vine grows in the summer -haha!).

Althea rosea - Hollyhock

It's close relative Hollyhock is a great demulcent, too (leaves, flowers, root).  Another unassuming and ubiquitous demulcent comrade often goes unnoticed for what follows its graceful presence.  Prickly Pear flowers are an antioxidant-rich cooling and soothing demulcent tea.  I use it in various formulas if for no other reason sometimes than to add some soothing moisture to the formula.  There are two distinct excessively dry times of the year in our area (May-June; October-November).  Just a bit of soothing demulcent action in a daily tea goes a long way in keeping our mucous membranes happy and intact.  If you were in northern Arizona, New Mexico, or Colorado, chances are you or your neighbor might have a Siberian Elm (Ulmus pumila) in your yard.  This close relative of Slippery Elm serves equally as a nutritive demulcent.  The inner bark is considered a food, and similar to numerous other inner barks, once dried and pounded it can be cooked into a gruel which aids in convalescence.  It coats and soothes.  Particularly when the digestive tract has been greatly inflamed and the individual has suffered through a great deal of diarrhea with extensive nutrient loss there is a great need for slow and steady nourishment.  The tea or gruel of Elm bark provides just that.  I have counted 2 or 3 trees present within Tucson, but it is a bit warm for it to thrive here.  On a trip up north have a look out for it.  Generally, a bit of modest pruning will get you years of good food/medicine.

Powdered Elm Bark - Ulmus pumila


One thing about being sick is you don't feel good.  If it's hard to relax, it's harder to enjoy the process.  If you can't relax, then your vitality will be stifled before too long.  One of the inhibiting factors to healing is tension.  This manifests differently for different people under different conditions.  Sound different?  We can use sedatives in a way that promotes the easy flow of the vital force throughout the whole body.  This can be centered on the lungs when there's a dry, spasmodic cough keeping you up at night.  This can be muscular tension throughout the body which is zapping your energy as you toss and turn in bed or on the couch.  A sedative can be used to ease the pain so you can focus on something else like warming a bowl of soup (once the fever is gone!), lying motionless, or walking to the bathroom.  If there was one sedative to do it all that would make it simple.  Well, for some people that may be true.  California Poppy could be that for some of you.  It can allay anxiety and nervous tension, calm a weak, spasmodic cough, or help you fall asleep when your mind is racing.  It is perfectly safe for children, even infants.  I have used the tincture on numerous occasions to rub onto my daughter's gums as she was teething.  It has a tradition of use for whooping cough. 

Passiflora edulis - Passionflower

For this purpose, you could combine with Passionflower.  Passionflower is believed to have antimicrobial properties, but it is primarily a sedative.  Look to use it when the individual is feeling hot and irritated.  It is a known remedy for high blood pressure, particularly when brought on by stress, or high-rate metabolic types.  Another traditional cough remedy is our local Desert Lavender (Hyptis emoryi).  It also possesses the quality of being an excellent sedative and nerve relaxant.  It opens the lungs, stimulating the bronchiolesat the alveoli to draw in more air and relax simultaneously.  Here the blood is oxygenated and invigorated by the vital force.  When the breath becomes compromised, the vitality present within each breath is reduced.  Opening up the breath once again allows for us to move back onto a path toward healing. 

Hyptis emoryi - Desert Lavender

Desert Lavender puts us on a path toward healing.  It is a fantastic systemic anti-inflammatory herb making it indispensible during recovery time.  Simply steep the leaves and flowers in hot water for 20 minutes.  Adding this mint family herb to your tea will likely improve the flavor as well as the medicine.  I personally really like Cherry bark in cough syrups, but you can find a variety of sources listing Cherry bark as a sedative and digestive tonic.  It is a classic cough remedy for its relaxing action on the lungs and its sedative effect on the nervous system.  It, too, has been used with whooping cough.  Properly harvested dry cherry bark should have a sweet, almond scent.  If that is there, it is going to be a great remedy.


Last but not least we have a category that has made it into the common psyche of the day.  Immune enhancers or stimulants initiate a response from our, what else, immune system.  Albeit, our immune system is complex.  We are born with immunity in place and we even begin acquiring immune savvy from within the womb.  As we grow to experience our world our immune system becomes more sophisticated.  We develop two basic arms of our immunity: Non-specific, or innate immunity, and the specific, or adaptive immunity (contains the cell-mediated [TH1], and humoral [TH2] branches).  The complexity beyond there is staggering, but suffice to say that we have ways of putting up a defense whether we know what the pathogen is or not.  As we acquire an immunological inventory of what we know we can handle, the sophistication and response time improves.  So, how can herbs help us with all this?  The simplest answer is that we don't always know.  However, herbs have been shown in a variety of circumstances to mount an immune response when the immunity appeared otherwise diminished or stagnant.  It is quite possible that most herbs that effect the immune system do it in a way that is unpredictable.  Sound dangerous?  Well, it is actually quite intelligent.  Whether it's the herb's intelligence or our own body's, or BOTH, we know that our immune system can become more alert, heighten surveillance, increase identification of pathogens, enhance elimination of pathogens, clear the waste products faster (via the lymph), inhibit over-expressions of immunity, etc., under the influence of certain herbs.  There are FAR too many to begin to address them all within this post, but we will instead take a peak at a few relatively local plants which have been found to have a positive effect on the immune system.  Earlier I mentioned, Chuchupate.  This herb has been classified as an antiviral.  That comes about via its ability to enhance viral recognition (the easier we can identify the pathogen, the easier we can rid ourselves of it).

Sambucus nigra ssp. mexicana - Elderberry, Tápiro

about via its ability to enhance viral recognition (the easier we can identify the pathogen, the easier we can rid ourselves of it).  Another herb classified as antiviral is Elderberry (Sambucus nigra).  I know that Elder flower is a classic, well-rounded remedy, but there is some interesting information about Elderberry.  It was shown to inhibit the influenza virus from attaching to the cell before it can begin replication (similar to the mechanism of action in the pharmaceutical Tamiflu).  Elderberry tea, tincture, or syrup are all good choices.  The particular study utilized the Elderberry syrup as have numerous other clinical studies involving Sambucus nigra.  Our local low elevation species is Sambucus nigra ssp. mexicana (S. mexicana).  It is found along our waterways from elevations of 2500' to 4500'.  At higher elevations one can find S. nigra ssp. caerulea which enjoys forest clearings, trailsides, and creeksides.  Further north you may find Elder growing out in a clearing below a patch of Chuchupate speckled throughout the Aspen grove, but this Elder is likely to be Sambucus racemosa, or Red-berried Elder.  The berries are believed to be toxic, but upon cooking and straining of the seed I have heard that these berries are perfectly safe as food or medicine.  Dropping back down into the desert we have two distinct herbs for the immune system: Prickly Pear and Elephant Tree, or Torote.  If there are any true immunomodulators amongst our local flora, I believe Prickly Pear is it, particularly the fruit.  This fruit has been consumed en masse by countless people over generations from the Southwest US down into southern Mexico.  Not only that, you can find it in  the vast majority of the lower 48 states (see map).  Prickly Pear has the capacity to stimulate immunity within the presence of an infection.  It also can help to maintain a healthy immune system via its antioxidative effects and the nutrition it supplies the cells to quickly rebuild and ward off inflammation.  Once again, it is the polysaccharides which work to modulate the immune response.  Frantic testing is happening right now, particularly in Mexico (the Home of Prickly Pear) regarding its role in numerous applications from cancer cells, immune response and cryogenic sperm cell preservation.  Perhaps the Golden Age of plant usage is upon us.  Torote is regarded as a while blood cell stimulant, that is it enhances their production.  I learned this from my teacher Michael Moore.  A study from 1968 showed antitumor activity, but nothing else exists to my knowledge on our most abundant species of the region, Bursera microphylla.  

Bursera sp. - Elephant Tree/Torote bark

Native to California and Arizona it becomes abundant about 20 to 60 miles south of the border, and the Bursera spp. only grow in diversity from there.  Closely relate to Myrrh which was traditionally used to stimulate vitality in response to an infection, oral infections being foremost.  In the past, I have thought of it as a local analog for Echinacea, but it doesn't do everything that Echinacea does (nor vice versa, for that matter).  It has been used for scorpion bites, cough, and bronchitis throughout our region.  I see it as a lymphatic, antitussive, and expectorant great for thick, mucousy, intractable coughs.



Moore, Michael.  2003.  Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West.

1 comment

  • Ava Anderson-Kemper

    How long and how much would it cost for me to apprentice under you? I live in New Mexico and I am trying to learn as much about herbs as I can, but I really need some help with wild identification…that is something that I can’t seem to develop much of a sense of. Even a one day trip foraging would be a blessing.

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